Time to Move On

Like many of you, Amy and I had the pleasure recently of attending a graduation ceremony for one of our children.  Joshua, who completed his degree at the University of Pennsylvania in December, returned from his new home in Tel Aviv to participate in commencement exercises with his class.  The two days we spent at Penn were an emotionally fulfilling and filled with pride and delight at our son’s accomplishments, a feeling that I’m certain many of you have experienced as well.  These are moments to cherish, true “she-hecheyanu” moments that call forth from us expressions of gratitude and delight at life’s blessings.  We are so pleased to see our children grow and thrive and to see them move forward in life.

Still, transitions like graduations can sometimes be quietly bittersweet.  While we take delight in seeing our children grow and mature, we know that as they do we must begin to let go.  When our children are young, we know that we must begin to teach them to make their own decisions and to live on independently.  At some point in life, we recognize that our children are moving swiftly toward adulthood.

Change of any type is both good and challenging.  In order to be fully human, we must embrace change, both in ourselves and in those we love.  And change can be challenging, as it requires us to give up that which is familiar and comfortable and replace it with something new.

As we watch our children grow and change, we should be reassured that, while part of us may find it hard to let go, their growth brings forth a new, positive and enriching person of whom we can be proud.   It may be challenging at times to embrace change, but it brings with it new promise and potential.

When asked what Josh is doing now that he has graduated from college, we proudly say that he has moved to Tel Aviv and is working for Google as a computer programmer.  Upon hearing that he has moved across the world from our home in New Jersey, some people say, “You must be devastated that your son has moved so far away.”  I instinctively reply, “Quite the contrary.”  Children are meant to move forward from their family home to find themselves in the world.  Not only am I proud that Josh is expressing his Zionist identity by making aliyah, I fully accept that his life journey will take him where he wants to go, not where I want him to go.  That is as it should be.

In that spirit, and at this season of transition, I share this poem by the Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran about the destiny of children, which I have always found moving:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children 
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable. 

I want to wish Mazal Tov to all those in the Oheb Shalom family who are celebrating a graduation this month, whether from nursery school, college, or somewhere in between.  I encourage you to attend our annual High School Senior Shabbat on Friday, June 6 at 8:00 PM.  High School Senior Shabbat is a special evening on which we honor our graduating High School seniors and celebrate all they have done, and I know you will be pleased to attend.


Loving Israel Unconditionally

In a little more than a week, much of the Jewish community in the New York metropolitan area will come to Manhattan for the annual Celebrate Israel Parade up Fifth Avenue (I am proud that the parade is organized by Eventage, the outstanding South Orange based event planning company owned by Oheb Shalom members Matt and Jennifer Glass).  If you’ve never watched or marched in the parade, you’ve missed an exciting experience.   It’s a great thrill to see so many supporters of Israel out in force on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, singing, chanting pro-Israel slogans and celebrating Israeli culture, music and society.

The spirit of the parade is unconditional love of Israel.  The people who come to the parade, aside from a few extreme fringe elements, are there to affirm that Israel is loved by the Jewish people.  That does not mean that all North American Jews agree with every policy enacted or proposed by the Israeli government, nor does it mean that those of us who live here in America do not see any problems in Israeli society.  There indeed are problems, including stagnation in the peace process, issues of social injustice, poverty and the corrosive and unreasonable power of the Chief Rabbinate, that can and should be addressed by the Israeli government with greater focus and commitment.  American Jews have opinions on all these issues and rightly should be concerned with how Israel addresses them.

Thus I was taken aback this past week when a leading figure in the Conservative Movement suggested publicly that American Jews might become so disgusted with the Israeli government’s inaction on the question of official recognition of Israel’s Masorti Movement (Conservative) and Progressive Movement (Reform), that they could feel alienated from the Jewish State.  Responding to Knesset Member Aliza Lavie of Yesh Atid, who addressed the annual Rabbinical Assembly convention held in Dallas, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, chief executive of the Rabbinical Assembly, said “My fear is that world Jewry is becoming deeply alienated from Israel…Israel finding itself alone when facing a nuclear Iran, confronting a world which, taking sides, blames Israel for its very existence.”  Rabbi Schonfeld, wishing to motivate Lavie’s Knesset faction to take legislative action to recognize the legitimacy of non-Orthodox religious movements, added:  “Yesh Atid must intervene and put a stop to this, otherwise there will be no Jewish people to speak of or a world Jewry left to defend Israel. If you delay in addressing this issue, it will be too late, and you will have lost the world’s Jews.”

I know Rabbi Schonfeld, and her comments made headlines in Jewish online and in-print publications for their passion and candor.  No one should question Rabbi Schonfeld’s personal commitment to the vitality and security of the State of Israel.  Yet, I think her comments are subject to significant misinterpretation and misunderstanding.  It’s one thing for an American Jew to be passionate about change in Israeli society.  Passion, even activism, in support of a cause should be respected and admired.  In the aftermath of the convention, several of my rabbinic colleagues commented that the best way for Conservative Jews in America to increase the prestige and potency of the Masorti Movement is to make significant financial donations to the movement.  If the movement could expand its programs, train and hire more rabbis and educators, and open more synagogues and schools, it would be harder for the Knesset to ignore them.

But it’s entirely something else to imply that American Jews could become so upset and disgusted with Israel’s inaction or indifference on a particular matter, that they could become so alienated from Israel, that they would withdraw support.  While a person may privately express their concern and upsetness with policies of Israel’s government, to publicly state that a significant part of America’s Jews might become so disenchanted with those policies that they would no longer stand up for Israel, especially in a time of crisis, is simply irresponsible and dangerous.  Doing so gives cover and sanction to all those who are attempting to delegitimize Israel in today’s world.

We know that Israel is not a perfect society.  We ought to debate Israel’s problems and discuss solutions to those problems.  We should become active in causes that are meaningful to us, and we should invest in organizations and programs that promote the values that we wish to see take root and grow in Israel.  But we should never suggest that we might one day distance ourselves from Israel or allow any disappointment we may feel about how social problems are being addressed separate us from our spiritual homeland.  Caring for Israel means staying by her side.

On Sunday, June 1 I will be on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan celebrating Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.  I will celebrate Israel as the region’s only democratic state that has become in 66 years a world leader in enriching humanity.  Fully aware that Israel is not a perfect place, I will recommit myself to working to help Israel grow and change.  And I will feel and express my unconditional love for Israel.

Will you?

Boil or Broil: A Choice Affecting the Jewish Future

You wouldn’t think that the way you prepare dinner could affect the future of the Jewish people, but it just might.  It could affect the vitality of the State of Israel and that of the Jews of America.  The way dinner is cooked has everything to do with the way we align our priorities and express our values.  Since this seems like an outlandish idea, an explanation is in order.

I’m not referring, of course, to any routine dinner we might cook and serve but to a special dinner—the Passover meal eaten at the Seder. The Torah tells us, in Exodus chapter 12, that the Passover offering was to be roasted over fire (broiled), and specifically says that it should not be boiled. I’ve read that passage countless times and never paid very much attention to the statement that the lamb had to be roasted and not boiled.  But this year I happened upon an intriguing commentary on the passage that quoted the “Maharal of Prague” (Judah Lowe ben Betzalel, 1525-1609).  The “Maharal” explained that the process of boiling involves absorption of elements surrounding the meat, and that the meat is fundamentally changed by being boiling.  Roasting, or broiling, has the opposite effect, as broiling results in the meat being sealed off and preventing the elements around it from being absorbed.  In explaining why the Torah states that the Passover sacrifice offered by the Israelites had to be roasted (broiled) and not boiled, he said that the young nation at first had to develop a strong identity, which would initially require that it resist being shaped by the cultural and religious influences surrounding it.  When that strong national identity was in place, providing a foundation for the people to develop their cultural and religious norms independently, then they could “boil,” or afford to absorb and be influenced by the trends and ideas around them.

I thought of this Torah verse and the commentary of the Maharal this past week during the second session of a wonderful class being taught at Oheb Shalom by Rabbi Jan Uhrbach.  Rabbi Uhrbach was teaching about the Jewish views of particularism vs. universalism, or, more simply, the question of whether Jews ought to be concerned exclusively about the needs of Jews or, more broadly, about the world.  We live in an age of universalism, so the question might seem odd and its answer obvious.  But the future of Judaism actually may depend on how it’s answered.  Rabbi Uhrbach gracefully led the group through a series of texts that led to a conclusion: we must begin with concern and care for our own people, and then build outward to have concern for the people of the world.  One reason, she argued, is simplest of all: if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?  But another reason would be that it’s impossible to develop a sense of compassion by aiming to take care of everyone in the world.  Rather, we should begin by caring for those closest to us, those with whom we share a common story, a common set of values, and a destiny.  But we can’t be satisfied by caring only for our own.  We must move beyond self-interest to concern for all people.

The way we approach the tension between a Particularistic approach and a Universalistic one has broad implications for the future of our people.  What will happen to the State of Israel, and to the institutions and organizations of the Jewish community in America and around the world, if Jews don’t take responsibility for one another?  This is one of the biggest challenge facing our generation, and concern for how it will be addressed can be seen when observing how young teenagers relate to it.  In the past, when I’ve asked Bar/Bat Mitzvah students if they prioritize giving money to Israel and Jews around the world over other non-Jewish causes, the answer has been a resounding “no” (keep in mind that the question posed is about prioritizing Jewish giving, not giving exclusively to Jewish causes).  Ask yourself if you are worried about the future of the Jewish people if young Jews no longer feel that it is a priority to care for their fellow Jews.

We need to develop a strong sense of concern about ourselves, and invest in our own future.  Only then will we be strong enough and confident enough in our values to reach out to others.  First we need to broil our dinner, and only then can we afford to boil it. 

Note:  Rabbi Uhrbach’s third- and final- session, on the theme of Jewish law vs. conscience, will take place this Sunday, May 18 from 9:30-11:00 AM.

E Pluribus Unum

This famous phrase- “E Pluribus Unum — Out of Many, One,” which is found on the seal of the United States of America, is not only a statement about the unity of our nation. It can also be understood as a challenge to us as Jews, especially Conservative congregations like ours. The challenge is to translate our religious diversity into a unified whole and create a balance between the standards and expectations of the community and the needs of the individual. It is a challenge especially for the Conservative Movement of Judaism, because we are a centrist movement founded on the notion of pluralism. While its core ideology remains focused on adherence to Jewish law and tradition, Conservative Judaism is, in reality, a community of people who span a broad spectrum that ranges from traditional to liberal in their beliefs and patterns of Jewish practice. How can we create community out of such a diverse group of individuals?

The tension between the individual and the community was the subject of a class taught by Rabbi Jan Uhrbach last Sunday at Oheb Shalom. Rabbi Uhrbach, a scholar and master teacher, shared a wide variety of texts written by scholars across many centuries. Far from being theoretical, Rabbi Uhrbach introduced a case study involving prayer in which the pull between the individual and the community is played out. Such a case study presents the opportunity to discuss and debate real scenarios. For example, in a community made up of individuals that have varying levels of skill, experience and background, as well as differing ideologies and interest in spiritual matters, how can one worship service be created that meets everyone’s needs? Additionally, in a congregation that historically embraces certain religious practices, rituals and standards, is it fair to insist that those standards be altered because some of its members do not wish to invest the time to learn Hebrew, study the history and structure of Jewish prayer, or gain experience in the way that congregation worships through regular attendance? What responsibility does the community have to sustain the individual’s spiritual needs? Equally important, what responsibility does the individual have to the community?

These are crucial questions for our congregation, as I often hear from congregants that they find it difficult to participate meaningfully in our worship services. In the same way, these questions are equally compelling for our society, as we consider the individual’s responsibility to our community and the community’s obligation to aid and support each individual.

This is an important issue, and I would like to hear your thoughts and opinions, especially in the realm of congregational worship. Please share your thoughts on these questions:

  • How can one worship service be created that meets everyone’s needs?
  • How does a congregation know that a “course correction” is needed and wanted in its ideology (which is presumably expressed in its rituals)?
  • Is it fair to insist that a congregation’s worship patterns be altered because some of its members aren’t prepared to participate meaningfully?
  • What responsibility does the community have to sustain the individual’s spiritual needs, and what responsibility does the individual have to the community?

Beyond these issues, I urge you to attend Rabbi Uhrbach’s second session in a 3-part series on Jewish tradition in the modern world, scheduled for this Sunday, May 11 from 9:30-11:00 AM.

Frogs Here, Frogs There, Frogs Are Jumping Everywhere

We’ve recently concluded our celebration of Passover, as the last paragraph in the Haggadah says, “along with all its rituals and customs.”  Among young children and their teachers and parents, those rituals include the singing of “Frogs Are Jumping Everywhere,” a happy sounding tune based on the story in the Torah about the invasion of frogs from the Nile River, the second of the Ten Plagues.  Behind this children’s song lies an important and serious message that has become deeply relevant in recent days.

This week we learned that Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers professional basketball team, made outrageously offensive racial comments in a conversation with his girlfriend (in days to come, the back story of why the girlfriend secretly recorded their conversation will surely come out).  Born in Chicago as Donald Tokowitz and raised in Los Angeles, Sterling is the son of Jewish immigrants.  He is a self-made billionaire who purchased the Clippers franchise for $12 million in 1981 and has seen the value of his investment rise to $750 million.  Upon confirming that the comments heard on the tape were made by Sterling, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Alan Silver, banned him from professional basketball for life, levied a fine of $2.5 million, and promised to press the 29 other owners to vote to force him to sell the team and make his eviction from the NBA complete.

Sterling may think of himself as a generous and tolerant person (his foundation distributes money to several charitable organizations, including some that support minority causes), but there is no doubt that he is a rabid racist.  His removal from the NBA was absolutely the right move for the commissioner to make.  Now that must be followed by being ostracized from other communal organizations and social groups, for there is no place in our society for someone who holds racist views.  Not only must a message be sent to Mr. Sterling that his racism rightly excludes him from mainstream society, but a similarly strong message must be sent to all other racists, those in the open and those in hiding, that their racism is an unacceptable violation of everything that decent and honorable people stand for.

The only way to defeat the scourge of racism is for good people to unify and rise up against it. We can’t allow bigoted people to spew their hatred and go unchallenged.  That’s the message behind the children’s Passover song about frogs.  Interestingly, the Torah passage in the Book of Exodus that describes the invasion of the frogs starts out by saying that “the frog” came up from the Nile onto the land—not many frogs, only one frog.  The Midrashic text seizes on this quirk of language to make the point that at first one frog came up and when he encountered no resistance he signaled to his friends to join him.  Thereafter, ironically, the Torah text indeed says that “the frogs” invaded the land.  The take away from the Midrash is clear—a plague will advance on its way to infecting society if it faces no resistance.

Frogs here, frogs there, frogs are jumping everywhere.  Passover may be behind us, but the ills of society are, sadly, not.  Donald Sterling, like all racists, is a plague on all of us.  The way to stop him and prevent the spread of his narrow minded, bigoted view of people and our world is to stand up and prevent him from coming up from the depths of the river onto the land.